Everyone categorizes people. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, thinking in boxes is as old as humans. It was a way of assessing whether an environment was safe or not. This way of thinking has made us who we are today. By thinking in “we” we confirm our identity. Identity offers security and guidance (Wij-Zij, n.d.). You would think that we all have only one identity, but those who google the word identity will discover that a person has multiple identities. Although all identities focus on another facet of our lives, all our different identities have in common that they distinguish us from the other or from a group of others. And that’s fine, as long as we don’t value our identities greater than those of others (Alefs, 2021).
We can all name disastrous examples of events that result from assigning more value to one’s own identity than that of another. Think, for example, of the Second World War, where Aryan identity was put above Jewish identity or the history of slavery where the indigenous population became “property” of white settlers. Yet, this group thinking is ingrained in our nature. And certainly, in times of threat, this can sometimes lead to strong hostile feelings towards non-group members. But such a reaction is not entirely inevitable. Belle Derks (2015), professor of social and organizational psychology at Utrecht University, says that our brain always thinks in social boxes. In our culture, for example, women are associated with non-career focussed, employees over 55 with inflexibility, men with leadership, and people of color with danger. We do not come up with such so-called implicit associations ourselves, Derks emphasizes. They have been taught to us. They, therefore, do not reflect your conscious opinion. We all have this “us-them thinking” to a greater or lesser extent (Van Riel, 2015).
According to philosopher Bart Brandsma (2017), author of the book ‘’Polarisation: Understanding the dynamics of us versus them’’, us-them thinking has increased enormously in all kinds of areas. We are forcing each other more and more to adopt extreme positions that magnify the differences between people to extremes that seem impossible to reconcile. We also call the growing us-them thinking polarization. It is a process in which contradictions between groups in society become stronger, resulting in an increased confrontation between groups. Polarization can be productive in triggering a change in society; sometimes polarization is necessary to clarify conflicting points of view and interests. However, if a polarization process continues for too long, society will become divided. We speak of unwanted polarization when the polarization process leads or threatens to lead to conflicts between groups, segregation, or the disappearance of the space for nuanced opinions (Van Wonderen, 2018). People are forced to take a position they don’t want to take. It is becoming less and less possible to sit safely or quietly in the middle. That is bad news, according to Brandsma (2017). The less space there is for people in the middle, the greater the chance of disagreement.
Agreeing with Belle Derks (2015), Brandsma (2017) notes that we are all guilty of us-them thinking. In order to act quickly and adequately in a complex world, we simply use the distinction of categories and in doing so we confess (or are forced to confess ourselves) to one of those categories. Who do I belong to and who do I not belong to? Who can be trusted and who cannot? In doing so, we need to generalize, and we expose ourselves to stereotyping (Brandsma, 2017).
According to Ron van Wonderen (2018), senior researcher and theme coordinator Social Stability KIS, polarization in neighbourhoods often arises from small things, such as discomfort, insecurity in the interaction between groups, or minor irritations about behaviour. In the Emmasingelkwadrant, there are also various situations that reinforce polarization in the neighbourhood, such as conflicting opinions, varying needs, and nuisance. An example of conflicting needs is the liveliness of the neighbourhood. The younger generation living in this area longs for a lively neighbourhood, although the older generation longs for peace and quiet. In addition, the younger generation would like to see benches in the public space, although the older generation ensured the previously placed benches to be removed. According to this older generation, the benches caused nuisance.
Speaking of nuisance, opinions differ about this too. Some of the residents state that the nuisance is caused by visitors to De Huiskamer, a meeting and activity centre for vulnerable refugees who are waiting for a residence permit. While others think it is a matter of getting to know each other to get along. Due to the diversity of the inhabitants’ (cultural) backgrounds and the little contact between the inhabitants of the area, people feel alienated. They do not understand each other’s intentions and behaviour and are less likely to address each other. This can deteriorate the interaction between the inhabitants and strengthen negative perceptions.
Prejudices and stereotypes between people from different ethno-cultural-religious backgrounds are not only a manifestation of polarization but can also fuel polarization even more. In an area such as the Emmasingelkwadrant, where nuisance and deterioration predominate among some residents, residents are withdrawing further and social trust and control over each other’s behaviour diminish (Van Wonderen, 2019). Especially when the blame for nuisance and deterioration is associated with the presence or behaviour of certain groups in the neighbourhood. Creating and strengthening the resilience of local residents to solve problems themselves could reduce tensions between groups. In other words: giving local residents the feeling that they themselves can change the situation. Contact, communication, and dialogue offer opportunities to reduce stereotyping and prejudice and to solve neighbourhood problems.
Thinking in “us” and “them” is inevitable. Of course, your own family, your own language, your own city or country is special to you. According to author Hans Kaldenbach (2017), we can better accept this reality and see how we can limit the disadvantages. I, therefore, believe that more connection between the residents in the Emmasingelkwadrant is the solution. As long as identities are nurtured, the polarization frame remains. I, therefore, believe that we should focus on strengthening “the silent centre” in order to be more resilient to polarization and to strengthen social cohesion. These are the inhabitants who take a neutral position but can play a key role in strengthening connections, reducing contradictions and enabling dialogues. As I mentioned, polarization in neighbourhoods is often not caused by differences that are difficult to bridge, such as religious differences or ethnic superiority, but is often rooted in “minor causes”. This gives direction to the possible solutions for polarization in the Emmasingelkwadrant or the prevention thereof, whereby improving the daily contact between the inhabitants is important. The “silent centre” with its diversity of identities, knowledge, opinions and backgrounds is, in my opinion, the only group that can counteract the pressures of extreme groups and the growing distances between people. They are the ones who can make the connection in our society flourish again (Van Wonderen, 2019).
I think it’s time, for both the municipality and the inhabitants of the Emmasingelkwadrant, to create a new reality, a new system, form new beliefs and reflect on how we should do this and should not do this. ‘’The way we have always done it’’ is going to make way for ‘’The way we’re going to do it’’.
In order to depolarize and create a new system, a new reality, I’m convinced that it is not necessary to fight the opposite poles, but rather to strengthen the (silent) group in the middle. I believe an important aspect is to look for what people really want in a polarized dynamic. It is, without exception, every human being’s desire to be heard. That is why listening to residents is important to be able to articulate the underlying question they have and bring them together around this question. What connects people should be central, not what makes people differ from each other.